Something amazing happened to me this morning: I woke up.
I don’t mean I suddenly experienced a religious conversion or became “woke” as in socially-conscious. I mean I quite literally, and simply, opened my eyes. Through some miracle and mystery of consciousness I woke up to the reality of my life, ready for another day.
Another day to drink coffee, text a friend, listen to music, stare into space, have sex, comb my hair, eat bacon, and check Twitter. Another day to call my Grandpa, drink a beer, read a book, sneeze, forget to brush my teeth, receive a compliment, and worry about what the hell I’m going to write about.
But it’s not just me. You woke up today, too.
This is a big deal. Especially when you realize that there will come a day when you will NEVER WAKE UP AGAIN.
Consider this: yesterday 150,000 people from all around the world died from all sorts of diseases, accidents, and acts of violence. Today, another 150,000 people will die. Tomorrow another 150,000. And the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after…you get the idea.
Over the course of a single calendar year, 55.3 million people will take their last breath.
By the time you finish reading this sentence, ten people will have died. Hopefully you weren’t one of them…….
Still here? OK, moving on.
It’s worth calling attention to the fact of death needn’t be nihilistic or depressing. In fact, with the right mindset, becoming aware of your own mortality can have the opposite effect:
It can flood your entire existence with the feeling of gratitude.
Gratitude Is Good For Us
Researcher Robert Emmons, considered by many to be the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, believes that gratitude has two components.
“First,” he writes, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. Second, we recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside ourselves.”
In other words, we didn’t necessarily create the circumstances that gave rise to the goodness. Instead, as Emmons puts it, “we acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.
There’s now a mountain of science showing that the practice of gratitude is good for us.
In one seminal 2003 study, Emmons and fellow researcher Michael McCullough split people into three groups.
Participants in Group 1 were instructed to think back over the past week and write down five things they were grateful for. Participants in Group 2 were asked to write down five hassles or annoying things they’d experienced. And finally, participants in Group 3, the control group, were asked to down five events that had “affected” them in the past week, whether positive, negative, or neutral.
After 10 weeks of this practice, results showed that participants in the gratitude group felt better about their life, were more excited about the coming week, and experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness.
Since then, dozens more studies have been completed. Gratitude has now been shown to decrease depression, increase empathy, improve self-esteem, and build mental resilience.
We know this, of course.
But practicing gratitude can be difficult. How are we supposed to feel grateful when we get fired from our job or get into a fight with our partner? How are we supposed to feel gratitude when life seems to be a never-ending source of small disappointments and failures?
Most people feel as if they need to wait for something good to happen in order to feel grateful. Luckily (See? I’m doing it right now), this is not the case.
Instead, you can reliably create the feeling of gratitude in two powerful ways:
IT COULD BE WORSE!
This is a tip I got from Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher. In his extremely practical meditation app, Waking Up, Harris instructs us to periodically “manufacture a feeling of gratitude by simply contemplating all the bad stuff that hasn’t happened to you.”
Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic and late for an important meeting. In this situation, most of us feel angry and stressed out. You curse the cars in front of you. You beat yourself up for not leaving earlier. You worry about the consequences of your being late.
But as Harris instructs, there is another move open to us: You can stop freaking out and think about how many people around the world would happily trade places with you in order to escape the current reality of their dangerous, less lucky lives.
People caught in war zones, migrants walking hundreds of miles in blistering heat…these are realities that exist in this moment, and you are not in them. You are simply sitting in traffic, fully clothed, fed, and air-conditioned, with no real worries.
As Harris reminds us, “There are at least a billion people on earth at this moment who would consider their prayers answered if they could only live as you do now.”
Recognizing this fact can transform an ordinary feeling of annoyance into a deep sense of gratitude for your life—and compassion for the people who find themselves in more unfortunate situations.
Marvel at the Simple Things
In his new book, Thanks A Thousand, author A.J. Jacobs opens with:
The object of his amazement? A cup of coffee.
In his book, Jacobs is on a mission to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee, from the barista who served it to him to the farmers in Colombia who grew the coffee (and everyone in between).
Getty ImagesMarty Mathieu
His point is profound: Even the smallest things we normally take for granted are incredibly rich, complex, and amazing. Allowing ourselves to be in awe of simple things can increase our feeling of gratitude and wellbeing.
You can do this with virtually everything you encounter during your day. For instance, what happens when you charge your phone? What’s actually going on?
Well, dozens or hundreds of miles away at a power plant, an energy source powers a generator which produces an electrical current. This current goes through giant transformers to increase the voltage. Through a sprawling network of power lines, the electrical charge arrives at your local substation where the voltage is lowered and sent to smaller power lines in your neighborhood. The current enters a smaller transformer outside your house, which then goes into your service panel where breakers and fuses protect the wires in your house from getting overloaded. Then the electricity travels through wires in your home to an outlet you use to charge your phone. (Leaving aside all the miraculous things your phone does.)
All that just so you read this article, watch stupid cat videos, swipe right on Tinder, and avoid all the work you’re supposed to be doing right now.
More Gratitude = A Better Life
Knowing how to manufacture a feeling of gratitude is a skill that really can make every aspect of your life better. The good news is you don’t have to wait for anything good to happen.
“Unless you’re living the worst possible life,” says Harris, “it should be easy to find something for which you’re grateful.”
Whether you do that by thinking of all the bad stuff that hasn’t happened to you, or by recognizing the beauty of simple things (like the fact you have eyes to read this), you can feel a deep sense of wellbeing and ease in every moment of your life.
It’s like Drake, our honorary pop-culture poet laureate, reminds us: What a time to be alive.
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